Brain science, a cardiac workup, and how the violin is ripping me apart. Literally.
April 24, 2021:
I woke up extraordinarily cranky after making a lot of headway on the violin. My fingers are back.
Somehow I remember this feeling from when I played before. I wonder if cranking up your capabilities has something to do with it.
I spent the morning reviewing research on how music education — and specifically violin training — changes the brain. It turns out, there’s a ton of research on the neuroscience in that area, complete with MRIs. Learning the violin specifically seems to alter and expand the structure that connects the hemispheres, as well as the temporal and prefrontal structures and the overall cortex. It reaches the hippocampus and generates neurons. I expect that’s good, at this life stage.
It’s also making me insufferable, and, by expansion, cranky.
It’s interesting, because my desire to play again kicked in early in the pandemic, when I started listening to some of the literature I used to play. I felt like the motor cortex had kicked in while I was listening. According to one study, it probably did.
At Duke University a few years ago, a doctor ordered an MRI on an accomplished violinist who had lost the ability to play after a concussion. During an MRI, she listened to pieces she had played, and the test showed activity in the motor cortex.
Listening to the old concertos during the pandemic fired sequences in that cortex, and the time in lockdown gave me the time and space to activate them as well.
If only I could pursue this type of mind expansion without being so damn cranky.
Here’s what I was playing during this period:
May 10, 2021:
I’ve wondered about my decision to bleed off so much energy in re-writing Tchaikovsky in the last couple of weeks. I was going to play an easy selection from Swan Lake from my easy book.
Then the YouTube algorithm kicked out the waltz from the ballet, and it sent chills up my spine. I had to play it.
I pulled the Violin I part from the full score, and . . . it didn’t work very well for solo violin. I started revising it.
The project turned into this madcap thing, with me sawing apart pieces of the score, then putting it together in new ways, and hand-scoring transitions to get it all to work. I worked all the way through dinner one night, just to jot down ideas for the ending.
I stopped at the point that I found myself trying to transcribe the big brass part at the end from the bass clef. Too much. So I winged it, and it worked out pretty well.
Why on earth was I doing this, when my living room is stacked full of newly ordered sheet music?
I stepped back for a couple of days and thought about it. The whole thing had to do with taking ownership of the music on my own terms.
It all made sense when I watched a video from 2SetViolin, the famous YouTube violin guys. They were talking about the common phenomenon of mental and physical breakdowns in classical violinists, particularly when they’re facing juries and big auditions in college. They mentioned their own struggles, as well as horrific stories about breakdowns among students they had known.
Things fell into context for me.
First of all, I feel like I dodged a bullet by not majoring in music. Whenever I didn’t want to be pushed into crazy feats in the music school, I just shrugged and said, “Well, you know, I’m not a music major.” I feel like that’s the reason I was able to stay in music at all.
If it had been the focus of my life, I would have died from the isolation and the rigid standards of perfection. Music school is spent sealed off in a room with a vicious inner critic.
Journalism school was nowhere near as demanding. In terms of standards, learning curve and performance, it was pretty lame. Sure, lots of people dropped out along the way. But it was nothing like music school.
That brings me back to those crazed sessions revamping the Tchaikovsky last week.
I did it because I wanted to play it, and I didn’t want to kill myself to do it. I chopped out the stuff I wasn’t ready to play — the escalating chromatic runs, the peaks at the upper registers — and I left the beauty of the piece in place. I kept the beauty without the trials.
In a run-through today, it sounded good.
Here’s an excerpt from the composition:
May 18, 2021:
Last week, in the middle of the night, I sat up with a searing pain in my left shoulder. When I rolled, or tried to breathe, the pain tore through my left side. I sat up.
The Man of the house opened one eye and asked what I was doing.
“It’s either the violin or some kind of cardiac thing,” I said.
“It’s the violin,” he said. “It’s a torture instrument.” He closed his eye.
I took some aspirin and tried to sleep.
The next day, the pain on the left side roared back in the late afternoon. I decided to go to Urgent Care.
Once there, the staff ran the full battery to check for a cardiac event; after all, I’m only seven years younger than my father was when he was killed by a heart attack.
It wasn’t the heart, as it turned out. It was the violin.
The doctor, a young, cheerful man who pirouetted from one patient to the next like a dancer, told me I should stop playing the violin.
I’ve heard it before. In fact, the pain was part of the reason I quit the first time. While I was still in my 20s, the hard torque on that left arm pulled the muscles off my chest wall. Between that level of pain and an energy-zapping battle to survive in the workplace, I had to quit playing.
“You’ll either have to quit,” the doctor said, “or learn to live with this pain.”
I’m going to negotiate with it. I’ll limit practice sessions. I’ll put time between the days I practice. I’ll ice down every part of me that could get ripped loose during practice.
I’m not going to get my violin back, just to have it ripped away. This is mine.
One other thing: The fact that my muscles have started ripping away from the chest wall?
That means I’m doing it right.
May 25, 2021:
After getting knocked off my horse and sitting out for a few days, I jumped back on to get a song uploaded for the weekend.
You know what? I could play. I could really play.
I spent five days away from the violin, and those neuropathways worked their magic. Smooth bow, resonant tone, absolute confidence with finger strike.
I cut three new songs — two for a Bach medley, because I’m worried about getting behind on my calendar, and Pomp and Circumstance for YouTube Shorts. My arms, my shoulders and my back — they only hurt a little when I was done.
Two days later, I came back to take another run through the Tchaikovsky. It sounded great; not a glitch in the piece. I’ll shoot it tomorrow, then move on to the Khachaturian.
June 20, 2021:
I’ve been really prickly lately, thinking about my career.
I’m still stuck in the relentless reflection of the lockdown, wondering, for the first time, if I turned my back on the wrong talent.
I mean, sure, the newspaper industry collapsed, and very few people survived. But you know what? I did everything right.
All that practice I didn’t put into the violin? I put it into writing and reporting. I didn’t stop with the fundamentals. I learned statistics. Data analysis. Spatial analysis. I pioneered a form of grid analysis to map variables behind the decline of a city.
Then it occurred to me: If I had put in all this work as a violinist, I would still be playing. I wouldn’t be haunting the margins. Most likely, I’d still be playing premier venues.
When I put away the violin, did I throw away something of real value?
It’s a big question, and it’s enough to make anyone cranky.
Here’s what I was playing during this period:
July 14, 2021:
I’ve noticed, since I’ve attained a basic level of competence, that I’m not as interested in playing anymore. I’m six months in, and I’m not jumping in with quite as much hunger.
I had scrupulously practiced and videotaped and kept six weeks worth of material in the can; now, I’m down to two weeks.
I’ve wrapped up the Russian waltzes — the structure I adopted to get me through the early summer. I’m not sure where to go now. I guess that’s the benefit of having worked with a teacher; the teacher always has a plan for you.
This feeling reminds me of the old days, when the violin was this pernicious thing always nagging at me in the background. No matter what I accomplished during the day, practice time was always waiting. Practice — the task that was nearly always neglected. There it was, pushing at me, every minute of every day.
If anything, feeling that nagging guilt over neglecting the violin gives me a sense that my life is back to normal. That I’ve recovered the wholeness of a life that included the violin.
The guilt — I think that’s partially why I quit, too. When I worked for a company that set deadlines that required me to work 60 to 80 hours a week, everything that wasn’t essential in my life had to go — including the violin.
I could feel resentful about it, but in truth, it was easier to quit playing than I had ever thought it might be.
Right now, after six months of writing and playing and dragging my psyche through the world of my teens and 20s, I’m feeling tired. Tired to the marrow.
Maybe I need a break.
Here’s how I wrapped up this period:
Let’s keep in touch!
In my newsletter, I write “micro” essays about competition, performance, and negotiating with a discipline that can be productive and destructive. Here’s the link: Rebecca Raney — The Reckless Violinist